Asia Program

Events

Greater China Needs Democracy and the Rule of Law

April 19, 2000 // 12:00am

By Gang Lin

Daniel R. Fung, Solicitor General of Hong Kong, 1994-98
Hon. Richard Thornburgh, Attorney-General of the United States, 1988-91

The topic of greater China as a feasible economic entity composing the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan has aroused heated discussion in recent years. Yet, not enough attention has been devoted to the political possibility of greater China. Will greater China be able to accommodate different political systems in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan? Can the political dynamics of Hong Kong and Taiwan survive the dominance of Beijing's ideology and Chinese nationalism? Will Hong Kong's practice of the rule of law and Taiwan's democratic transition bring about significant political change in the mainland? These are some of the most controversial issues relating to greater China.

At a seminar hosted by the Asia Program, two distinguished legal experts explored different developmental trajectories and political scenarios in three Chinese societies -- Hong Kong, Taiwan and the People's Republic of China. Daniel R. Fung, former Solicitor General of Hong Kong, gave a talk titled "Legitimacy, Democracy and the Rule of Law in Greater China," and Richard Thornburgh, former Attorney-General of the United States, offered a commentary on Fung's presentation.

Defining legitimacy, democracy and the rule of law as three indispensable building blocks of modern civil society, Fung argued that China, Taiwan and Hong Kong have each embraced a different building block. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on the mainland claims its legitimacy based on the party's historical struggle against Japanese military incursions from 1931 to 1945, and on Beijing's achievement in raising Chinese living standards to an unprecedented scale since 1980. Taiwan embraces electoral democracy that later this spring will bring about a peaceful transfer of political power from the ruling Nationalist Party (KMT) to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Hong Kong has long enjoyed a rule of law under British tutelage that was so robust to allow for a maturing of the concept after the city's reversion to China three years ago.

Because the mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong each embrace only one of these three building blocks, all three confront crises, though of various degrees of gravity. According to Fung, increasing economic prosperity on the mainland has triggered ever greater demands for political freedom; the corruption of "money politics" in Taiwan has raised a question mark about the efficacy of the democratic electoral system in giving voice to people's real concerns; and the perceived confrontation between Beijing and the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal on judicial issues such as the right of abode has created anxieties about the integrity of the rule of law in Hong Kong. Fung believes these challenges are difficult, but not wholly insuperable. For example, self-restraint by Beijing and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government in vigorously guarding the principle of autonomy may ensure that the rule of law has a fair chance not merely of surviving but prospering.

Richard Thornburgh was less optimistic about the future of the rule of law in Hong Kong. Recent developments in Hong Kong, according to Thornburgh, have exactly paralleled the kinds of concerns expressed in a 1994 report on the prospects for the rule of law after 1997 by an International Republican Institute delegation that he chaired. Hong Kong is a kind of laboratory for testing the vitality of the rule of law after its return to the motherland. Thornburgh warned that the judicial dispute between Beijing and the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal threatens to transform the latter into a court of semi-final appeal that does not square with traditional ideas about an independent judiciary.

Thornburgh also voiced concerns about the future of the freedom of the press, which was explicitly guaranteed in the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Recent pronouncements by Beijing officials have revealed political constraints in reporting on Taiwan's democratic process and cross-Strait relations.

Both Fung and Thornburgh agreed it is feasible to imagine some form of federal structure or confederation that could accommodate the political dynamics of Taiwan and Hong Kong on the outer periphery of greater China. The practice of democracy and the rule of law in Taiwan and Hong Kong respectively will produce ripple effects on each other as well as on the mainland. Taiwan's presidential election has stimulated Hong Kong's process toward democracy -- a fully elected legislature and a democratically selected Chief Executive after 2007 as Hong Kong's Basic Law outlined have surfaced in public discussion. The transmission of liberal ideas into China, especially through the Internet, has challenged Beijing's legitimacy that has heavily relied on economic achievement rather than political development. Only by incorporating legitimacy, democracy and the rule of law can China develop its full potential within the globalized economy of the 21st century.

Upcoming Events

India Energy: The Struggle For Power

December 03, 2014 // 4:00pm5:15pm

Experts & Staff

Wilson Center Photo Gallery

Browse or share photos from the Wilson Center’s events.

To Attend an Event

Unless otherwise noted:

Meetings listed on this page are free and open to the public. Reservations are not required unless otherwise noted. All meetings take place at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Please see map and directions. Allow time for routine security procedures. A photo ID is required for entry.

To confirm time and place, contact Maria-Stella Gatzoulis on the day of the event: tel. (202) 691-4188. Check this page for the latest updates and notices.